Monday, October 08, 2007

Water Boarding: DEP Says Lien on Me

In yesterday's NY Times, the paper focused on the continuing battle between the city's DEP and New York's homeowners over unpaid water bills. The article takes a preview look at a consultant's report that suggested that the city should "get tough" with deadbeats
"A national consulting firm that spent nine months examining New York’s flawed water billing system has recommended that the city turn up the pressure on deadbeat customers by shutting off service to single-family houses and placing liens on multifamily buildings and commercial properties where the owners have not paid their bills."

In our view, and the Times piece does too little to emphasize this point, the fault lies more with the incompetence of the DEP and it's Water Board appendage. The fact remains, that a huge proportion of the outstanding water bills would not withstand a good legal challenge-something that was brought to our attention when we represented the Water Group, a consulting firm that helps businesses straighten out their DEP bills.

What the Water Group found, in case after case, was that the city's bills were bogus-and in case after case they proved this an resolved the outstanding money owed in a fairer fashion. In a situation over at Columbia Presbyterian a multi-million outstanding bill couldn't get paid because nobody over at the DEP could explain how the bill was derived. And let's not forget that a little over ten years ago the DEP routinely sent erroneous bills to its homeowner customers.

The Times story disappoints especially because the same reporter had written an excellent piece on the inefficiencies of the DEP earlier in the year, an article that prompted the agency to hire the consultants: "after reports in The New York Times that showed poor record keeping had prevented the city from collecting on tens of thousands of accounts, many more than a decade old and some totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars."

But the issue goes beyond inefficient record-keeping-since the data underling the bills is what is so often faulty. The NY Daily News gets this in yesterday's editorial that excoriates the Water Board: "The city's Water Board is gearing up to sock New York homeowners with a huge rate increase, the second such hike in just a few months. We wish we could explain why the board has to boost its bills. But we can't tell you the reason because the board is clueless as to why its books are out of balance. Inept? Absolutely. Outrageous? You bet. A bureaucracy crying out for intense attention from the mayor? Yes. Yes. Yes."

The editorial goes on to get at some of the outrageous inefficiencies that we've already touched on: "Bills get mailed to wrong addresses, or are addressed to people who moved years ago. Some customers are never charged for water they use. And when customers stop paying, the board does nothing. Its tally of uncollected bills is now an astronomical $560 million."

So now the department wants the power to place liens on people's properties. This, if allowed to happen, would amount to little more than a license to steal. The whole department needs to be sent up the river-and a competent replacement needs to be put in place before any one's property is placed at risk.

Thankfully Counclimen Weprin and Gennaro are not buying the DEP's lament. As the NY Post reported on Sunday: "But Weprin and Gennaro both still express strong reservations about water-lien sales, saying the faulty water-billing system has to be entirely overhauled first.
"I think the stand-alone water-lien sales are not the panacea some people are making it," Weprin said." Good for them!